Interviews with Scientists: Dr Emma Yhnell
Dr Emma Yhnell is a Health and Care Research Wales Fellow working in the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute (NMHRI) at Cardiff University. Emma’s fellowship is focused on exploring computerised cognitive training (brain training) for people with Huntington's disease.
Emma is a keen public speaker, STEM ambassador, and has published several communication pieces in order to raise awareness of Huntington’s disease. The focus of her research and career is to improve the lives of people living with the condition - and we’re delighted to speak to Emma for the next of our Interviews with Scientists series.
Hi Emma, it's lovely to chat to you! First up, tell us: what was your PhD in?
During my PhD I looked to characterise mouse models of Huntington’s disease to see if they accurately represent the human condition. While I was completing my PhD I was lucky enough to be invited to the patient clinic to meet people impacted by Huntington’s disease. It was only then that I realised the true impact of my work. If you are working on a disease or condition and you haven’t met anyone living with it, I would strongly recommend asking if you are able to meet people who are affected. It will really put your work into perspective. For me, it made all of the early mornings and late nights in the lab worth it.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I was younger. I suppose that I was already relatively academic. There were times when I wanted to be a lifeguard, a dressmaker or even a professional athlete! I really liked finding out the answers to questions and I have quite an investigative nature, so I think that is why I chose science. I really like finding out new things, advancing knowledge and knowing that I am part of a team that are looking to help people living with Huntington’s disease.
What made you want to pursue a career in your particular field?
I was really lucky to have excellent teachers that really inspired me during my time at school. School teachers are so important and can be instrumental in the subjects and topics that you enjoy and find interesting. So, thank you to Mrs Adams, Mrs Thomas and Mr Harris at Chosen Hill School for encouraging me to ask difficult questions so that I could continue to learn!
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD??
Starting out in a PhD can be really tough and sometimes it can feel overwhelming. But there are plenty of people to support you, whether that be colleagues in the lab, friends or family, they are all there to support you, so use them. A PhD is definitely a marathon not a sprint and good solid preparation will serve you well, read often and keep up to date with relevant literature. Beware that naturally there will be ups and downs, so use your support network when you need to and appreciate the successes and accomplishments, no matter how small they are!
What did you enjoy most about your PhD?
I graduated with my PhD in 2015, I really enjoyed the challenge and the level of independence that I was allowed. I felt that I was able to become a world expert in my research niche, and that is a great feeling to have. Admittedly, there were ups and downs but I learnt a huge amount about the field and also myself as a person. A PhD is a huge undertaking and the feeling of relief and pride once you submit and viva is immense. Try to enjoy the experience as much as you can, seek support when you need it and celebrate the good times, whether that be an experiment that has worked, successfully reading a paper or submitting an abstract, if you have achieved something celebrate it.
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...
After I completed my PhD I was extremely fortunate to obtain both a post-doctoral research grant and an independent fellowship to explore some of the things that I have found in the lab to take them into the patient clinic. At the moment I am a Health and Care Research Wales fellow and my fellowship looks to explore whether computer game brain training is feasible for people with Huntington’s disease. This involves meeting patients and families and establishing if they would like to take part in the study. I then complete all of the study assessments.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
My current job is clinically based research, so I actually spend very little time in the lab. Instead I spend time in the clinic seeing patients and research participants who may want to take part in my study on brain training in Huntington’s disease. Alongside this, public engagement and outreach is really important to be, so I can regularly be found giving talks or running activities to increase the public understanding and involvement in science. I think this is particularly important for patient groups to allow then to understand their condition.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I really like teaching and in my current role I am able to give lectures and seminars. I love being able to teach people and seeing that lightbulb moment when they understand a topic for the first time is wonderful. So I would probably be a teacher if I wasn’t a scientist.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
I have to confess that I don’t often get much time outside of work. But when I can, I enjoy going for a run, baking and socialising with friends.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
I love working with people who are impacted by Huntington’s disease. Whether that is patients, family members or carers, I feel like I am making a real difference to the lives of people who are impacted by this disease.
I really admire Professor Alice Roberts. Not only is she a world leader in her field, she is also an advocate for public engagement and science communication. I particularly admire women who have been able to progress to senior positions within the scientific field. Unfortunately women are hugely under-represented in senior roles in academia, this is something that is gradually changing, but we still have a long way to go.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
What’s your favourite science joke OR science quote?
In science, and especially research, I think the expression ‘When life gives you lemons make lemonade’ is particularly relevant. In this career there are lots of setbacks and developing resilience is a key skill.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
I’d have to say the work of the Huntington’s disease study group, which was published in 1993, as they identified the faulty gene that causes Huntington’s disease. This revolutionised the field and the fact that the disease is caused by a single gene is very rare indeed.
You can follow Emma on Twitter @EmmaYhnell
Thanks so much, Emma! It’s been really interesting talking to you, and we wish you all the best with your research!